The Attack on Humanity, Ten Years Later: Conflict and Management

A decade has passed since September 11, 2001. On our side, there is still bickering over construction of the memorial site in Manhattan, but the war over the mosque, or cultural center, nearby has gone into remission. Memorial services focus on the victims rather than on the clash of civilizations that the attacks represented. This year, we can even celebrate with fanfare, since Osama Bin Laden is dead, dumped ceremoniously into the Indian Ocean.

But, on the other side, the conflict is not over. To the discomfort of those who saw a large centralized organization, the hydra has evolved into lots of little organizations focusing on regions they know well and targeting fellow Muslims and symbols of Western encroachment—AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), AQHA (in the Horn of Africa), and AQAP (in the Arabian Peninsula), among others. The danger to the United States is reduced or, rather, is controllable with new and intensified security measures; the danger to Algeria, Nigeria, Niger, Mauritania, Somalia, Kenya, Yemen, Oman, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia is greatly increased. These groups are beyond desperation for a cause: They are zealots and crazies, mesmerized by the self-destructive damage they can inflict on local “apostates” and foreign “imperialists.” Much like the Islamists in Algeria evolved—from the Islamic Salvation Front, seeking electoral legitimacy; to the Islamic Salvation Army, seeking to destroy the state security apparatus; to the Islamic Armed Groups, seeking to inflict local terror; to ragtag emirates around one local figure who exacted protection money and settled local accounts and rivalries—local and regional Al-Qaedas have lost their heads and seek only to fatten their bodies with ransom and revenge.

But there is more, an exhilarating twist of events that makes the September of 2011 a far more important and lasting sign of the times. In half a dozen Arab countries, a spontaneous, socially integrated, youth-led, and secular mass uprising has besieged and is toppling corrupt, arrogant, inefficient rulers in the name of open, participatory, accountable governance. Anti-authoritarian and anti-ideological (read, “anti-Islamist”), these uprisings want a government “of, by, and for” them, an aspiration that should be familiar on this side.

What has this to do with 9/11? Much like the anti-colonial movements that displaced the colonizer, these intifadas are both a negative and a positive reaction to the Al-Qaeda decade.

Negatively, they reject ideological pretensions of representing civil society, the people’s will, the true nature of their society. They have taken protest into their own hands for their own needs and purposes. To be sure, Islamic movements have seized the opportunity after the crowds have done the dirty work and have run after the train, trying to get on board and eventually be its conductor. Al-Nahda in Tunisia has been unbanned, but its claim to be an Islamic party has been contested by other Tunisians who declare that they are just as Muslim and don’t need a party to tell them how to be one. The Brotherhood in Egypt held its own protest in Midan al-Tahrir, after the originals, and now has split into three parties due to differences over tactics. A few Al-Qaeda operatives have been found in the Yemeni and Libyan uprisings, which leads some Western commentators to denounce the movements for guilt by association.

The last example raises important points. Certainly fundamentalist protesters will be found in all the uprisings. The point is that they did not start them. The second point is that if these political protest movements do not lead to a new order and only succeed in overthrowing the old, they eventually face a dual threat: an authoritarian order or an ideological (Islamist) order, not now, but not too far down the road. This is not what the original uprising demanded, but as slow progress, indecision, dried-up employment, and anarchy come to prevail, the human desire for order is likely to look to authority and/or ideology for a solution.

Positively, the current intifadas have learned from 9/11 that they too can do daring things but that the fundamentalists’ original concern—the home government—was the correct one. A World Trade Center attack captures headlines, but it only makes the target more righteously obdurate. No matter how clumsy and delayed their response, Western governments are not going to prop up clay-footed dictators; they are trapped in a mesh of their own values (to the surprise of some), and when an uprising has a pretension of democracy and a likelihood of success and the incumbents have been embarrassed, Western support is not surprising. Local initiative is possible and rewarded.

The game is by no means over, and we should learn not to be too American and expect immediate (and positive) results. As already indicated, too-slow progress after the overthrow can lead to a worse outcome. But even a better outcome will take time and patience, as well as careful planning and direction. The uprisers do not know where they want to end up, other than with a vague participatory, attentive, accountable government. Such democratistic values constitute a soft and complex goal compared with an authoritarian or ideological order, and as we know, the path to democracy can be the most disorderly of all forms of governance. Yet there is no direct (and directing) role for the West; democracy, by definition, means self-government, and the uprisers resent outside interference. They resent impatient Western democracies (who took several centuries to get there) trying to correct their course.

What can we do? First, we can facilitate their own efforts to work out where they are going. Taking a step in this direction, the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy, with the support of the National Endowment for Democracy, recently held a seminar in Tunis that gave Tunisian leaders a chance to argue among themselves, and there are more follow-up sessions in the works. Second, we can give carefully targeted economic assistance, above all to investment, that will get local economies over the hump and create jobs. We need to work to open local economies to trade and develop our own trade ties beyond the heavy dependency on oil for our imports and their exports. Third, we need to work closely with the new governments and foreign ministries to develop a strategy to bring about an Israeli-Palestinian solution. Israel is the big obstacle, obviously, but strategies are designed to deal with obstacles. And, finally, we must seize opportunities. September 11, 2011, presents us all with an enormous, exciting opportunity.


I. William Zartman is Jacob Blaustein Professor Emeritus of International Organization and Conflict Resolution at the School for Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University and member of the Processes of International Negotiation program at Clingendael, Netherlands. He is former president and founding executive secretary of the Middle East Studies Association, founding president of the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, and president of the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies.